BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE BORGIAS: POWER AND FORTUNE
by Paul Strathern (Atlantic £25, 400 pp)
Just 17 and already married, in 1497 Lucrezia Borgia began a dalliance with Pedro Calderon, a papal chamberlain. The couple were indiscreet and, while Lucrezia was punished by being banished to a convent, the unfortunate Pedro ended up floating in Rome’s River Tiber, his body bound and stabbed.
The finger of suspicion pointed at Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare. His motive for the murder, it was widely rumoured, wasn’t a desire to defend his sister’s honour, but rather incestuous jealousy.
Even more scandalously, it was said that Calderon was killed while clinging desperately to the robes of Pope Alexander VI — who just happened to be Cesare and Lucrezia’s father.
Naturally, the crime was never solved.
Paul Strathern recalls the Borgias family who inspired a steamy 2011 TV series starring Jeremy Irons (pictured) in a fascinating new book
Five hundred years after their deaths, the Borgias remain a byword for depravity and corruption, even inspiring a notably steamy 2011 TV series starring Jeremy Irons. As Paul Strathern points out in this account of the Borgias’ rise and fall, at the same time as art and culture were flourishing in Renaissance Italy, thanks to Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Raphael, the Borgias were inflicting new levels of savagery on the country.
Their pater familias, Spanish-born Rodrigo Borgia, was a long-serving cardinal with a burning ambition to become Pope. On the death of Innocent VIII in 1492, Rodrigo left nothing to chance, sending mule-loads of silver to bribe the cardinals whose votes he needed to secure his election as Alexander VI.
Renaissance cardinals lived as lavishly as kings — hunting, gambling, giving sumptuous banquets and accruing vast wealth. They also flagrantly ignored their vows of chastity and, by the time he became Pope, 60-year-old Rodrigo had already fathered numerous children by different women.
Amazingly, he openly moved his family into the Vatican, including his teenage mistress Giulia Farnese and his four favourite children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia and Jofre.
Lucrezia, the apple of her father’s eye, was married off at 13 to widower Giovanni Sforza. She was a striking beauty, with tumbling red hair and a creamy complexion, but, four years into the marriage, her husband suddenly abandoned her and fled Rome, apparently fearing for his life. What had happened between them? One clue is that, when the Pope sought an annulment for his daughter on the grounds of non-consummation, Sforza protested that he ‘had known his wife an infinity of times, but that the Pope had taken her from him for no other purpose than to sleep with her himself’.
Many people believed Rodrigo was indeed sleeping with his daughter, and that Lucrezia and her brother Cesare were also lovers. Strathern says there is no way of being sure, but comments that ‘the Borgias seem to have enjoyed sex as a spectator sport’ and were frequently seen fondling each other in public.
They certainly had a penchant for orgies and sharing each other’s partners: both Cesare and his brother Juan had an affair with Sancia of Aragon, the wife of their brother Jofre. When Juan was stabbed and dumped in the Tiber, Cesare was again one of the main suspects.
The author believes the main driving power behind the Borgias family (portrayed in TV series) was ambition, they wouldn’t allow morality or loyalty to stand in their way
Cesare, his contemporaries said, was ‘the handsomest man in Italy’. Though he revelled in clothes, parties and women, his father appointed him Bishop of Pamplona at 15 and made him a cardinal at 18 — all part of his plan to turn the papacy into a Borgia dynasty and unify Italy with the Borgias as rulers.
Strathern writes: ‘The main driving power behind the family was ambition. No considerations of morality or loyalty would be allowed to stand in their way.’
Cesare could hardly have been less suited to the Church — cruel, vindictive and bloodthirsty, his idea of a fun afternoon was to stand with Lucrezia on a balcony above a prison courtyard and use the inmates below as target practice with his crossbow. He was savage to his enemies, too — when a satirist made fun of him, Cesare had the man’s tongue cut out and nailed to his severed hand.
After five years, he resigned as a cardinal (the first ever to do so) and turned his attention to soldiering.
Rather too much of The Borgias is taken up with detailed accounts of the endless battles between various Italian dukes and princes, but it’s clear that Cesare was a formidable fighter and a clever tactician. He cannily formed an alliance with King Louis XII of France and carved out a state in central Italy to rule over, much to his father’s delight.
Cesare’s empire-building didn’t survive the death of his father Pope Alexander VI (portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the TV series with Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia)
He kept fit by bull-fighting and liked to dress in black, even wearing a black mask at times — though whether this was to hide the marks of syphilis or to intimidate those around him isn’t clear.
One of his most notorious exploits was the siege of the city of Forli, ruled over by the beautiful and formidable Caterina Sforza, Italy’s only female ruler and a relative of Lucrezia’s first husband.
Caterina refused to surrender and, while Cesare’s French allies were reluctant to shell a city controlled by a woman, he had no such qualms.
After ten days, Caterina was captured and imprisoned in Cesare’s bedroom. When he returned to Rome, he took his fiery prisoner with him, dressing her in black velvet to match his outfit.
THE BORGIAS: POWER AND FORTUNE by Paul Strathern (Atlantic £25, 400 pp)
Put under house arrest, Caterina tried to escape and was thrown into prison. She was eventually released, but she never revealed what had happened between her and Cesare Borgia. When she was dying, she told a Dominican friar: ‘If I could write anything, I would stupefy the world.’
However many women he slept with, it was always Lucrezia with whom Cesare seemed to be obsessed. In 1500, he despatched her second husband, whom she adored, by getting the commander of his armed guard to burst into the pair’s bedroom and strangle him.
Brazenly arranging the assassination of his brother-in-law not only got rid of a rival for Lucrezia’s affection, it also served to terrify Cesare’s many enemies.
As the Venetian ambassador wrote after the murder: ‘All Rome trembles at this duke, that he may not have them killed.’
It’s a sign of their very strange relationship that, though Lucrezia truly mourned her husband, she quickly forgave her brother.
Lucrezia ended her days as Duchess of Ferrara, a respected patron of the arts. Despite the rumours that swirl around her, there seems little evidence that she ever poisoned anyone.
Cesare’s empire-building did not survive his father’s death. Without the Pope’s support, he was captured by his enemies, and escaped, but died on the battlefield in 1507, stabbed by three knights who had no idea who he was.
Rodrigo’s successor, Pope Julius II, ordered on pain of excommunication that no one should ‘speak or think of Borgia again’.